Libraries in the Time of COVID

Hi Friends!

Well, this year has certainly taken an interesting turn. COVID-19 has been changing the face of shopping, entertainment, social interaction, school, and of course libraries…Or at least it should be changing how schooling is done.

Murder hornets! Lightning storms! Hurricane Laura! Hurricane…that other guy! I feel like we’re running out of hurricane names. Oh, joy.

With schools and libraries working the front lines in terms of help and access to information, we’re trying to help people as much as possible without putting ourselves at risk. And I’ll admit, it’s been exhausting but rewarding.

This one’s for all the teachers trying to educate during this difficult time.

I haven’t written as much for Brash Librarian as we’ve gotten further into the pandemic for that simple reason – I’m just tired, and busy. We’re all tired, and busy with something. The constant mask wearing, hand washing, socially distancing, sanitizing everything…it feels like a post-apocalyptic movie that never stops. If you’ve been laid off, you’ve probably been busy filing for unemployment, rent assistance, and applying for any and every job just to keep a stable cash flow. To those people: I see you and care for you, and we’ll do everything we can to help you at the library.

Prior to all this, I used to check social media several times a day: in the morning, at lunch, in the afternoon, after dinner, before bed…the usual for most people. Now, I check once or twice a day. The newest COVID fatality numbers, the latest shooting, breaking news about another peaceful protest gone violent, it’s enough to drain the life out of anyone. I’ve mourned for family and friends who lost their lives the past few months, but I know plenty of people who have lost much more than me. For them, we must keep pushing.

What are libraries doing to help?

Right now, we’re seeing unemployment skyrocket into the tens of millions of people – people who need to pay their rent, feed their kids, go to school, and are now unable to. If they can’t pay for their internet anymore, guess where they’re going to fill out job applications, unemployment benefits, and print out their resumes or other paperwork? The library. After a disaster like a giant wildfire, super double hurricane, earthquake, etc, people will often need to fill out, email, or print stuff. Guess where that’s also done?

What’s made this pandemic more difficult is how the responses vary from state to state. Some states stuck with “better safe than sorry”, and some states are aggressively still pushing for “grandma can die for the economy”, unfortunately.  What does this mean for libraries? Well, it means a whole dang lot. While I can’t go into detail for every single library and state, we’ll use my library as a baseline.

Based in Houston, we were fairly lucky to have some local officials really push to keep people safe.

In our library, all non-essential employees got sent home twice:
-Once from March 24th – May 11th
-Again from June 29 – August 10th
Doing the math, that’s 13 weeks. That’s literally a quarter of the year. Aside from a few Zoom meetings and a few hours a week for essential duties (payroll, emptying the book drops, etc), we were completely shut down.  Only electronic checkouts were possible during the stay at home orders. Some people think “free vacation!”, and that’s true for about three days…before it becomes “I’ve gained 15 lbs, watched everything Netflix has to offer, and forgot what sunlight feels like.”

It starts to take a toll.

During the closure, our library director developed a plan to safely re-open the library, based on state guidelines, consulting fellow library directors, and visiting four libraries that opened before us. The plan had five phases, reviewed and approved by our City Health Department, the Office of Emergency Management, and the Mayor’s office, went as follows:

Phase One
We return to work (still closed to the public) and offer phone reference and virtual programming.

Phase Two
We added curbside pickup. (May 26th)

Phase Three
We received PPE (face shields, plexiglass windows in children, teen and adult areas) and  opened back up to the public with reduced hours and restrictions. (June 14th)
All branches opened back up to the public. (August 17th)

Phase Four
We add hours and days to the schedule. (This is where we’re currently at.)

Phase Five
We return to pre-COVID-19 procedures, which probably won’t happen until a vaccine is available.

Of course, these phases aren’t in stone and can change at any time, adapting to new circumstances and rules as needed. Other things that have changed:
-Masks were encouraged at first, but are now mandatory.
-Every other public computer is shut down for social distancing. Computers in use are allowed limited time (1 hour sessions). Liners are put over the mouse and keyboard, and changed between each patron.
-No money handling.
-No book sales or large events.
-No study rooms or meeting rooms.
-No book donations accepted.
-Returned items are quarantined for four days.
-No food or drinks except water.
-No book sales.
-No furniture besides the chairs for computers.
-No interactive programming, per the state of Texas.
-All expired library cards were renewed from October 1, 2019, to December 31, 2020.
-All fines and fees have been waived until December 31st.

Is it all bad?

While this might all sound bad and scary, there were a few silver linings to these clouds. During the second stay at home order, our Central Library began renovations on July 27th while staff were still at home. Our mission: to get new carpet, and to re-arrange most of our collection in the adult area. Our carpet was old, worn, stained, and our shelf layout was inefficient. The library director and select managers (including myself) worked short split shifts to open for the contractors and then close at night. The carpet is fresh and modern, the shelves run parallel to our ceiling lights for brighter aisles, and genres are now grouped into “neighborhoods” with space for tables and chairs (but no tables and chairs during COVID).

Additionally, this “new normal” has given us time and effort to explore new opportunities we’ve never tried. All of our programming has moved online – puppet shows and story times to teach and educate, crafting videos for kids and adults using every household items – everything we did before, just now on camera. Since I love being out in the public and there’s currently no public to be out in, I’ve really enjoyed working with our team to make fun, creative videos that entertain the community and keep their spirits up. For example, we shot a Blair Witch-style parody during October to promote our horror collection.

Imagine my surprise to roll over the next morning and learn that our video was 80% more popular than all of our recent posts. It tells me there’s a need for short, funny videos. And we plan to MEET that need! Another popular segment on our programming is “Celebrity Story Time”, where I do story time doing impressions of different celebrities and characters. Every 60 seconds, I switch to a new character until the whole book is finished. They’ve been highly popular, and it also gives me a chance to stretch my voice acting legs.

Another great idea that’s been working well are drive-in movie events – more on that in my next post.

One more silver lining, I am pleased to announce that I have officially graduated from my MBA program! WOOT WOOT!

It’s been a long, arduous journey. I laughed. I cried. I gained 10 lbs trying to survive Finance 101 and 102. But here I am, alive and well. Mostly well. And I hope you are, too!

Let me hear from you guys – how are you handling the pandemic? What has your library done that you’ve liked or disliked? What else would you like to share? Let me know in comments below!


Justin Brasher, Brash Librarian

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